Learning Greek

… and please don’t say “its all Greek to me”…

I entered my first year at Mount Allison University thinking I’d major in French. I’d been pretty good at conversational French in High School where that’s all we did (little reading and even less writing – it was an educational experiment) and because I was in Canada I thought being a French major would guarantee me work somewhere…

Harry Hamlin as Perseus in the Clash of the Titans

Who doesn’t enjoy some Ancient Greek history now and then?
Harry Hamlin as Perseus in the 1981 movie Clash of the Titans

However, I took one elective through the Classical Studies Department – a survey of ancient Greek and Roman art and architecture and I enjoyed this class so much I changed my major to Classical Studies and Greek – and that naturally meant I had to learn ancient Greek.

Languages have never come easily to me (and when I look back on it I wonder why I ever thought I would major in French). Some people thrive studying languages whether ancient or modern, but not me. It was a daily struggle with all of it. I can honestly say that I had to look up just about every word and parse it for every kind of ancient Greek text that I read (and I read a lot during my academic career).

I finally started to really enjoy it in graduate school when I took a class on Homeric Greek and we read the Illiad and some of the Homeric Hymns. But even for that class I had to pretty much write out each word and study it. But, as I said, I eventually found the Homeric Greek a joy to read.

Ancient Greek texts

Just a couple of the texts that I read in school – one by Plato, another by Sophocles, and my two reference books that I couldn’t survive without.

When I started going to work in Greece on archaeological digs it meant that I also needed to learn some modern Greek so that I could get by on my own. When I was in Athens I generally lived by myself in apartments that I rented from other (much more well to do) graduate students or professors who kept places there year round.

I became very adept at taxi Greek, groceries Greek and restaurant Greek. I also got very good at reading the entertainment paper to find movie listings.

My conversational Greek however left much to be desired, at least until just before I left Greece for good in 1985 – by then I actually spoke more like a native, and a woman at a clothing store kept asking me if I was Greek – well I had to have Greek parents, I must be from some Greek family… and so on. I was buying sport socks so this was something of an achievement for me.

Betty on 2nd floor of the Stoa of Attalos

Me striking a pose on the 2nd floor of the Stoa of Attalos at the Athenian Agora. The offices were behind the partitions… and my cheapo camera has really distorted the columns – but you get a sense of the space and how huge and grand the building is.
c 1981

Going back to the second season that I went to work at the Agora (see my previous post Travels to Aphaia) I mostly traveled alone and lived alone.  I was determined to experience everything I could in the time that I was there including learning more about modern Greek culture. I wanted to be open to whatever came my way…

It was literally my first day back in Athens and I headed down to the Plaka to find a pair of handmade sandals. I knew the store I wanted to go to and headed straight there. Afterwards, I poked around in some of the other shops killing time. And though I had little or no money I wandered into a jewellery store. I was hankering for a pair of silver Bronze Age style axe head earrings (which I eventually got).

the Plaka in Athens, source: wikimedia commons, photo by Spyrosdrakopoulos

Once you get away from all the tourist shops, the Plaka is very beautiful and quiet.
The Plaka, image source: wikimedia commons, photo by Spyrosdrakopoulos

The guy working there persisted in talking to me and since he didn’t have anyone else in the shop he spent some time showing me jewellery. Then out of the blue he asked me to join him and his family for dinner that night. So having made the commitment to myself to live life as an Athenian, I said yes.

I returned later in the evening when he closed up the shop, and he took me home to meet his family. They lived in a very modern apartment building. I remember that the living room had white marble floors and walls and was very spacious with a big picture window.

My modern Greek was non existent at this time (except for my taxi Greek and grocery Greek) and the entire family was there speaking a mile a minute. I think there were about 14 people – brothers, sisters, parents, aunts, cousins – I don’t know…

Soon we all got in cars and drove a long way to a restaurant in an area I’d never been to before. It was packed with local people, and we were put at a long table so that the whole group could sit together. The conversation went rapidly back and forth and I didn’t catch any of it. The fellow who invited me was very polite and solicitous – but I felt like such an outsider and also like an intruder into this family outing.

At one point when the table was completely covered with dishes of food I asked politely for the bread to be passed – or at least that’s what I thought I’d said. Well, apparently the woman across from me thought I’d asked for something that sounds a lot like bread but actually is the street word for penis… all Hell broke loose…

Betty at bakery in Athens 1981

Here I am with my friendly neighborhood baker during my first trip to Athens in 1981.
I guess its obvious why the word for bread is similar to the word for you know what…
I thought I was pronouncing “bread” fine in Greek – after all I bought bread almost everyday from this bakery – but maybe that’s why this man was so friendly when I went in?

People started screaming at me – at the guy – at each other – I understood enough Greek curses to know that I was being called some not very nice things.

At that point the guy took me out of the restaurant – thank God. I was hoping that that was it for the evening. But no. He took me to the most expensive, newest hotel in Athens, to the bar for a drink.

After all the insulting things I’d been called at the restaurant, I felt really uncomfortable going to a bar in a hotel. I was really suspicious about his intentions by then, so I got out of there as fast as I could and grabbed a taxi back to my place. And thank goodness my taxi Greek was good enough then to take me where I needed to go.

I was so scarred by that experience that I avoided that street in the Plaka for the next few years – I couldn’t bear to see that guy ever again. And believe me I was very – very careful from then on with my pronunciation of the Greek word for bread.


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